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Once signed to the UFC, Russian wrestling legend Bilyal Makhov makes successful return to the mat

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After a two-year hiatus, three-time World champion Bilyal Makhov went undefeated in Poland

Olympics Day 15 - Wrestling Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

It’s been over four years since the UFC announced the signing of Russian freestyle and Greco-Roman standout Bilyal Makhov. The heavyweight force had no amateur or professional mixed martial arts experience, making his entrance at the highest level of the sport especially conspicuous.

Makhov’s debut was delayed so that he could prepare for and compete in the 2016 Olympic Games. In Rio, Makhov lost his first match and was not pulled back into repechage, ending his tournament.

Since then, Makhov had competed twice in wrestling, with no word of a UFC debut. In November of 2017, Makhov won the prestigious Alans, before going off the grid for two years.

This past weekend, Makhov made his return at the Waclaw Ziolkowski Memorial tournament in Poland.

Read on for Makhov’s results, as well as other noteworthy performances from traditional and non-traditional powers alike.

Russia’s Reliable Giant

Now 31 years old, Bilyal Makhov’s legacy began in 2005 when he won a Junior World title in freestyle. That same weekend, Makhov won bronze in Greco-Roman. The Russian repeated as freestyle champion in 2006 before moving up to the senior level, where he won his first World championship in 2007, repeating with additional gold medal performances in 2009 and 2010. Makhov’s 2010 title was over three-time Olympic champion Artur Taymazov, then just a two-time World and two-time Olympic champion. Taymazov has now been stripped of two Olympic titles due to drug test failures.

Across all age groups, that’s five World titles in short order, and six medal performances. While Makhov would never stand on top of the podium again, he never left contention. Makhov reached the finals of the 2011 World Wrestling Championships, won bronze at the 2012 Olympics, won Greco-Roman bronze in 2014, then earned double bronze at the senior level at 2015 Worlds, placing third in both freestyle and Greco.

After Taymazov’s drug test failure for the 2012 Olympics, Makhov’s bronze was promoted to silver.

Makhov Impresses at Ziolkowski

The 2019 Russian World team has not yet been finalized. The Ziolkowski was meant to serve as the official wrestle-offs for several spots, but later plans were changed, with some Ziolkowski results determining spots, and with others leading to later wrestle-offs in Sochi.

At heavyweight, Russia’s Alan Khugaev had the chance to earn a shot at Anzor Khizriev, who was exempt from Russian Nationals after he won gold at the European Games in June. Not many were expecting Bilyal Makhov to enter the mix at the Ziolkowski, and there is still plenty of uncertainty whether or not he’s even in contention to wrestle for a spot.

In his first match, Makhov met Poland’s own Robert Baran, last year’s Ziolkowski finalist and a recent International Ukrainian Tournament silver medalist.

Right away, Makhov demonstrated the style that has made him incredibly difficult to deal with in the heavyweight class. The 6’5 behemoth is quick to put his hands on his opponent, dragging down on the neck with heavy collar ties and short snaps. The long arms and strength of Makhov allow him to constantly chase his opponents, never taking his hands off of them.

This constant hanging serves to both fatigue and create reactions. Once a wrestler can finally shake Makhov, they’ll likely look for a quick break from the uncomfortable bent-over stance, standing up straight. That’s when Makhov finally attacks.

Makhov will also dig underhooks, typically on his right side. From a collar and underhook, his opponent’s posture is entirely under his control. Once he finds manipulating position and posture a bit more easily later in the match, Makhov can set up upper body attacks like drags, snaps and throw-bys.

When it is time to “go”, Makhov displays alarming speed and agility for a man his size. Like most Russian wrestlers, he picks his spots, so he typically has the energy to operate in bursts to exploit scoring opportunities.

On the mat, Makhov has a nasty gut wrench. Given his size and strength, it takes plenty of effort for opponents to resist the first move of the gut, meaning Makhov can usually find an exposure off a quick directional change if they manage to stop his first move.

Defensively, Makhov is calm and savvy. If he can’t catch underhooks off a shot, he’ll collect a far ankle and create the angle to lock his handle through the crotch. This counter ability makes his constant handfighting while standing tall a safe strategy against most.

Makhov defeated Baran by 10-0 technical fall, and while that makes every bit of sense, it must have been a relief for Russian fans to see him in fine form.

In the quarterfinals, Makhov met 2019 U23 Asian champion Yusup Batirmurzaev. The stocky Kazakh was happy to deal in upper body ties against the Greco-Roman World medalist, and he paid the price for risky throw attempts.

Makhov had no problem at all getting to his underhooks, and Batirmurzaev was not able to disrupt the positioning of Makhov before attacking off double overs and over-unders. It wasn’t long before Makhov caught him flat on his back and earned the fall.

If Makhov was out of shape or in poor form, he would certainly be tested by Hungary’s Daniel Ligeti. A noteworthy competitor since 2006, Ligeti has medaled at a number of major tournaments, including the European Championships and Yasar Dogu.

A number of Ligeti’s relevant medal performances were in Greco-Roman, including a 2012 Golden Grand Prix bronze and a FILA Grand Prix title in 2015. Ligeti has entered tournaments in Greco-Roman as recently as 2018. On paper, he would be a much stiffer test in upper body positions.

Ligeti proved to be effective in stifling much of Makhov’s draining offense, even mixing in attacks of his own, the superior positioning of Makhov opened up scoring opportunities and he was able to come away with a 4-0 victory.

In the opposite semifinal, Canada’s Amar Dhesi upset Alan Khugaev, 1-0. The Oregon State alumnus showed up to the Ziolkowski in the best shape of his life, and notched what was by far the biggest win of his career at the senior level.

According to a reliable source on Twitter, Khugaev needed a Ziolkowski title to earn a wrestle-off with Khizriev in Sochi.

With Khugaev out of title contention, Makhov ended his tournament early, forfeiting to Dhesi in the finals.

Our friend Ivan does not believe Makhov will be granted a wrestle-off, and that Khizriev has made the team. Given his body of work and tournament performance, it would make a lot of sense for the Russian coaches to give Makhov a shot, but only time will tell.

Naifonov Stuns, Yianni Shines

But heavyweight wasn’t the only bracket of intrigue.

At 86 kg, Artur Naifonov and returning 2018 World team member Dauren Kurugliev were set to wrestle-off for a place on Russia’s team.

A 2017 Junior World champion and 2018 U23 World silver medalist, Naifonov was arguably the favorite, having defeated Kurugliev at the 2019 Ali Aliev in May.

The young Russian surpassed any reasonable expectations when he pinned 2018 World silver medalist Fatih Erdin in the semifinals.

Kurugliev, on the other hand, was upset by Poland’s Zbigniew Baranowski, a solid staple who finally broke through with a silver medal at the 2019 European Championships, up at 92 kg.

Check out this hectic final minute and clutch finish by the hometown wrestler Baranowski.

With the spot at 86 already secured, Naifonov moved on to face Baranowski in the final.

Naifonov showed off steady positioning, impeccable defense and nasty drags and head outside singles to pick apart the red-hot Polish wrestler.

With returning World champion David Taylor out of action for the 2019 World Wrestling Championships, Naifonov will seek to upset Iran’s Hassan Yazdani Charati for his first senior World title.

At 65 kg, there was a changing of the guard for the Ukrainian delegation.

The tricky Gor Ogannesyan upset his teammate, 2015 World bronze medalist Vasyl Shuptar, to make the finals. On his way to the Shuptar match, Ogannesyan defeated three-time Asian champion Daulet Niyazbekov, 9-3.

Check out the crafty comeback performance by Ogannesyan against Shuptar.

The dangerous hips and apparent judo base of Ogannesyan make him especially volatile on the counter, and he found his spots to pull through.

On the other side of the bracket was American’s sweetheart, Yianni Diakomihalis. Still waiting on the unlikely possibility that he’ll receive the chance for an additional wrestle-off against Zain Retherford for the World team spot, Diakomihalis has been plugging away on the international circuit.

In the quarterfinals, Yianni met Kazakhstan’s Sayatpek Okassov, a 2019 Asian Championships runner-up and 2018 Asian Games bronze medalist. He made quick work of the veteran, 11-0.

Unfortunately, Ismail Musukaev forfeit in the semifinals, and we were not treated to a rematch of their dramatic Yasar Dogu match.

The scrambling, attacking style of Diakomihalis matched up well with the surging counter-player Ogannesyan, leading to the most exciting match of the tournament.

Showing off his ever-improving poise and freestyle savvy, Diakomihalis downed the Ukrainian. Ogannesyan’s victories over Niyazbekov and Shuptar were massive, but coming in to the Ziolkowski he boasted a 2019 International Ukrainian Tournament title and a 2019 European Games bronze medal.

Stay tuned for more international wrestling updates as we approach the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan, set for mid-September.